Laird Hamilton: What I’ve Learned

Posted: Mar 31 2011


The 47-year-old pro surfer and co-inventor of tow-in surfing, an insane version of the sport whereby the surfer is towed by a motor craft, on what it takes to catch a big wave
By Cal Fussman

Originally published in the April 2011 Extreme Health issue

Just because people are doing extraordinary things doesn’t mean they’re not ordinary people.

One of my favorite things to do in the morning is to stand on golf balls and roll them along my arches. You have seventy-four hundred nerve endings on your feet, so you stimulate your whole metabolism when you do that.

When we first decided to try to ride Jaws,* no one had ever ridden waves that big. Period. So we didn’t know if we were going into a black hole never to be seen again. Regardless of how it was perceived from the outside, we operated conservatively within the environment. We always say: Ride to ride another day. We go out there with the attitude that we’re going to do it in a way that we can do it again tomorrow.

Riding a fifty-foot wave for the first time is like the first time you go more than a hundred miles an hour in your car. Afterward, you can’t remember what was on the side of the road or if there were even other cars on the road. Once you’ve driven more than a hundred miles an hour five hundred times, you start to be able to look around.

When you make a mistake, the ocean gives you an instant reminder. You get punished. If golf clubs could shock you every time you hit the ball wrong, we’d probably learn how to play golf pretty well.

When I was a kid, the lifeguards would come to my mom’s house and say, “Well, Laird’s out at sea again.” She’d say, “Oh, no, he’s inside sleeping.” They were like, “No, he’s out at sea and we’re going to have to go get him again. That’s the third time this week.”

When you’re little, you ride a one-footer, then a two. Then a ten. It keeps evolving.

The Genghis Khan warriors used to have a rule that you never talked about injury. The way it translates for me is: Don’t train for what you don’t want to have happen. It’s like this: People say, “Oh, I can hold my breath for five minutes.” I say, “I wouldn’t be working on that because that might be something that you get tested on.”

Wiping out is an underappreciated skill. Look at any sport that has crashing or falling. Football. Motorbike. There’s an art to crashing. If you took a normal person and threw them into that situation, they’d be severely hurt. But the guys who’ve developed a certain skill at it hop right back up.

Surfing’s one of the few sports that you look ahead to see what’s behind.

First of all, you always try to avoid ever getting down there in the first place. But when you are deep down and getting washed around, you’re pulling on all the years of what’s happening to you and the skills you’ve acquired. You’re getting rag-dolled and spun around thirty times and you’re wondering, Am I near the bottom? Am I near the top? Normally, I close my eyes. Seeing only disorients you and makes you use more oxygen. Sometimes you know that any kind of movement is just a waste of energy. So you totally calm yourself. I open my arms and try to expand out — like a floating leaf. It’s a little bit like wrestling somebody four times bigger than you. If he’s got you pinned, chances are you should just wait until you feel him let up, and then make your move. But then there are times when you feel you don’t have much air, so you just dig down and turn into some sort of sea creature to get to the surface.

I’m almost forty-seven now. I’ve never felt stronger, never felt in better shape, never felt more focused, never felt more experienced. There are strong young guys. But there’s nothing meaner and more experienced than a fifty-year-old tough guy.

*A huge surfing spot on Maui where waves can reach seventy feet high and travel at speeds up to thirty miles per hour. By Cal Fussman Chris Weeks/WireImage
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